50 years. 50 queers.

Paddy Aldridge

Paddy Aldridge

Feb 1, 2013

Name: Patricia Ann Aldridge aka Paddy Aldridge
DOB: May 23, 1955
Occupation: Owner/Operator Take A Walk On The Wildside Toronto
Favourite Book: Ma, He Sold Me For A Few Cigarettes by Martha Long
Favourite Movie: Blade Runner – Directors Cut
Favourite Music: All Karaoke Music
Favourite Person At/Over 50: Florence Kingston
One Word About 50: Achievement

Paddy Aldridge has become a mainstay in Toronto’s queer community. She took up residence at The Lincoln in the gay Village at the age of 18 because, as she says, “I just had to be in the atmosphere of people who were gay because they were open-minded and fresh and thought clear thoughts.” But it was when she opened the iconic Take A Walk On The Wildside that Aldridge cemented her status as the go-to woman for cross-dressing men, drag queens and even the entertainment industry.

Aldridge had no idea what she was about to set off when she opened Take A Walk On The Wildside August 1st 1987. As a matter of fact, she practically stumbled into it by accident. “It started just after I graduated from Ryerson Theatre School and I needed a job,” she recalls of those early days. “I worked for the Santa Claus Parade for a year and made a float, and I helped with costumes. After that, I had a friend say, ‘Why don’t you put an ad in the paper?’ because I knew how to do makeup and dress people up and teach them to act. I had friends who were drag queens. It was nothing for me to see a guy in drag. I grew up with that, basically. So we put an ad in Now Magazine that just said, ‘Take a walk on the Wildside. Who’s that girl? It could be you.’ It worked. The phone rang off the hook.”

“Most of my clients were heterosexual men who had never told anybody that they cross-dressed.”

It didn’t take long for the shop to gain notoriety in the drag and cross-dressing community—and in the media. In fairly short order, Aldridge and her shop landed in the crosshairs of the media looking for a scintillating and somewhat scandalous expose about the world of cross-dressing. “We were on Donahue [The Phil Donahue Show],” she says. “That was a very big step and then we got on to Oh La La [TV show]. My publicist was Penny East and then it was Gino Empry.”

Take A Walk On The Wildside not only brought Aldridge fame—it put her into the position of being something of a Mother/Confessor to men struggling with their identity in a culture where gender roles and expectations were strictly defined. “Most of my clients were heterosexual men who had never told anybody that they cross-dressed,” she says of her primary clientele. “I was immediately put into a position of having to be a sort of social worker/ psychiatrist/ psychologist. I put them in a barber chair I have and reclined them back, so right away that was like a psychiatrist’s couch. Then when I started to do their makeup they’d just start to spill their guts. I was 32 at the time I started it. When I have these customers, they’re not just coming into my store to buy a quart of milk. Basically, they couldn’t just come in and have a transformation. They had to come in and be encouraged and told it’s okay and not to worry.”

“I can’t remember what 50 was like…because it seemed like the real pivot in my life was more like 47.”

Along with the business, the clientele and the celebrity, there came a growing pressure to please. Being made a de facto therapist for scores of people led Aldridge to search for her own solace in alcohol. She spent many years escaping using alcohol until she finally had to face her dragon of addiction at 47. It was then she took control of her drinking, and subsequently took control of her life. “In 2002 I had my 15th anniversary party for Take A Walk On The Wildside and the place was packed—wall-to-wall people—and I don’t even remember it because I was so exhausted,” she recalls of the last days of her drinking. “Four days later I left Toronto for a year and went into a facility. I stayed there for four months but I stayed away [from Toronto] for a year because I never had another life except downtown Toronto. I lived on Vancouver Island in Nanaimo. It was a different life.”

When she finally returned to Toronto, Aldridge had a new sense of sobriety—and a new outlook on life. “I can’t remember what 50 was like for me,” she says, “Because it seemed like the real pivot in my life was more like 47, because I worked so hard and I never had any outside life outside of Take A Walk On The Wildside. I got sober when I was 47. Some friends of mine ran my business for me so I could go away for a year and that really helped. I couldn’t have continued on without that help. So, 47 gave me a new life.” To help take her focus off of bars and places to drink, Aldridge went back to school to study Web Design, Digital Art, went to film school and took up painting.

Now, there was the rest of her life to deal with. In the 10 years since becoming sober. Aldridge has built a business and a career that has given her means with which to navigate the rest of her life. However, she sees many people—both queer and not—who are struggling to make ends meet and in some cases, are taking drastic steps. “There’s all the talk about there not being enough money and there not being enough people to take care of you,” she asserts. “I know people who have put aside drugs to kill themselves if things ever get terribly bad. I’m not talking about whether things are right or wrong, I’m talking about how people are finding solutions that are personal because there aren’t across-the-board decisions you can make. If you make a decision that enough is enough and you want to go, you can’t get help with that. You better be ready to deal with that by yourself.”

“I have a foundation of people who I help and they help me…I treat the people who help me well. That’s something I just do because we need to do that.”

Other less severe solutions are born out of recalibrating what we see as support. Since many people—both queer and straight—don’t have children, the obvious question arises: who will take care of me when I get old? Aldridge is facing that in a pragmatic way that she sees as being one of many viable solutions. “I have a friend who is 12 years younger than me and she’s saying, ‘Oh, I’m so worried about my future.’ And I’m looking at her and saying, ‘If you take care of me, I’ll leave you everything.’ So what is the problem? I have a foundation of people who I help and they help me. If I go on a trip, I have someone who looks after my cat. I treat them very well. I treat the people who help me well. That’s something I just do because we need to do that.”

Another way that Aldridge helps build community and create a care network is through volunteering. She believes that you get just as much as you give when you are in service to someone. To that end, she began a unique endeavour while her mother was living in a nursing home. “I started to go to the home to sing karaoke,” she says. “There are not a lot of people volunteering for things like that. I’ve been singing karaoke to these old folks with Alzheimer’s for eight years now and they look so forward to it and they love it so much. It gives back to the person who volunteers. It’s giving back to me. I have different friends who sing with me and that’s something that I never could have done had I not stopped drinking and learned how not to be drunk.”

“Look in the mirror. Be honest with yourself…where are you going to be at 65 or 70?”

As much as Aldridge has been a role model and confident to many in the queer community over the years through Take A Walk On The Wildside, she also has people she looks to as a source of guidance and inspiration to help her along life’s path. One is a dear friend Florence Kingston. “She’s five years older than me and she’s learning how to put everything together so that she can retire,” says Aldridge. “I follow in her footsteps in the sense that I listen to what she says and I watch what she does. She’s an inspiration to me.”

Now, having crossed 50 with a new outlook, sobriety and a stronger sense of self, what does Paddy Aldridge think people who are approaching or who are at the half-century milestone should do to better prepare for the next 50 years: “Look in the mirror. Be honest with yourself,” she says matter-of-factly. “Where are you going to be at 65 or 70? Where are you going to be? Where do you want to be?”

2 comments

  1. Paddy, you’re a ray of sunshine, a girly friend extraordinaire, and a hoot. Congrats on your recent coverage – and uncoverage!

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